No one is better than Martin Cruz Smith (Rose, Red Square, Gorky Park) at evoking the sights, sounds, and peculiar textures of lives lived in extraordinary times and places. With December 6, Smith moves from the contemporary Cuban setting of his previous novel, Havana Bay, to Tokyo City in 1945, giving us a suspenseful, minutely detailed account of the days preceding -- and immediately following -- the attack on Pearl Harbor.
His vehicle for this hypnotic ride is gambler, con man, and suspected collaborator Harry Niles, who grew up on the streets of Tokyo and is, in many respects, more Japanese than American. Harry runs a popular expatriate bar called The Happy Paris and juggles romantic relationships with the wife of the British ambassador and a tempestuous former geisha named Michiko. Like many of his fellow Americans, he's convinced that war is imminent and is determined to catch the last flight out of Japan before hostilities commence. His plans for escape face many obstacles, including the obsessive scrutiny of two zealous agents from Tokyo's "Thought Police" and a crazed modern samurai with a long-standing grudge against Harry that can only be satisfied by bloodshed. All of this is complicated by Harry's penchant for high-stakes gambling and by his own peculiar ethical code -- a code that leads him into a dangerous shell game with Japanese Naval Intelligence and causes him to risk his life protecting friends, lovers, and even strangers.
Like all really good fiction, December 6 works on a number of levels: as a thriller; as a multilayered portrait of a complex, contradictory figure; as a meditation on Japanese culture, character, and beliefs; and as a cogent historical analysis of Japan's decision to initiate a war it could not possibly win. The result is a striking, absolutely authentic novel that illuminates one of the critical moments of the 20th century and confirms Smith's position among the most stylish and intelligent American storytellers. Bill Sheehan